Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #17)

Some months ago, I wrote the entry, “Wife Training,” and posted it on January 30, 2017. In that post, I compared my own training to that of the typical Armenian girl in Ottoman Turkey. Today’s excerpt from my historical fiction gives voice to Annie’s concerns for her training for the future–as a wife.

While Annie shares a meal with her family, she thinks, How had my Mayrig become such a fabulous cook? Had her mother-in-law even had time to teach her?

Uncle Dikran’s stories of our family’s losses echoed in my mind. A mob of local Turks killed our grandparents and an uncle twenty years ago. At about the same time, a band of Hamidiye, Kurdish militia men, kidnapped my hyrig’s and uncle’s older sister when she was only seven years old. The family never did learn what happened to her.

When I was little, I’d wondered why other children had grandparents and we didn’t. I’d made myself believe that some disease had claimed them. Hearing how ours had died shocked and saddened me. As I remembered my uncle’s story, I thought, He never told me why the Turks and Kurds attacked our family. Perhaps he doesn’t know.

Reaching under my caftan to touch the envelope in my pocket, I couldn’t help wondering. Is this letter about a potential mother-in-law? When it’s time for me to marry, I’ll learn how to cook from my husband’s mother. That’s been our custom for centuries. Will I be learning from someone in America?

I finished making coffee and served it to Hyrig, Taniel, and Levon in the sitting room. “Your cousin in America wrote.” Placing the letter in my hyrig’s lap, I left the room.’

Little does Annie know how much that letter will change her life–and actually give her hope for a future. Unlike the rest of her family. The cataclysmic spring and summer of 1915 is not many months hence.




Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #16)

In my previous entry “Chaotic Consequences: Now and Then,” posted on July 2, 2016, I referenced the aftermath of recent disastrous battlefronts–floods of desperate Syrian refugees trying to find safety.

I likened that scene to one that occurred in December and January in 1915. When the Russians decimated the Turkish army in the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks weren’t the only ones who suffered. Their commandeered Armenian porters did, too. There was no organized retreat for the fifteen percent of those who survived the battle. It was every man for himself. Escaping the battlefront and heading in the right direction toward home was only part of the challenge. The trek home had to be done in the dead of winter, across hundreds of miles, without adequate clothing or food, on foot, and often alone.

Annie and the rest of the Gregorian family have no knowledge of the battle pitched hundreds of miles away from their farm and town in central Ottoman Turkey. All Annie knows is that she hasn’t heard from her oldest brother, Mesrop, in months. He doesn’t even return home in time for one of the most important times of the year, early January’s Feast of the Theophany. Annie wonders. Mesrop is a student at an Armenian college. Surely the war with Russia has nothing to do with him. What has happened to him? Why haven’t we heard from him? Where is he?

Two weeks after the Feast of Theophany, Annie and her father go into town with a cart of farm products and set up a booth to sell them in the bazaar.

While I was measuring out a couple of kilograms of flour into a customer’s sack, a skeleton of a man staggered up to me. Looking up from the scale I held in my hand, I stared at the man’s matted hair scantily covered by a rabbit skin tied over his head. I ran my eyes down the rags he wore. Their faded hues reminded me of clothes I had helped make for… The man’s blue lips moved. A cracked voice whispered, “Annie!” The ragged frame collapsed at my feet.

Dropping my scale, I knelt next to the heap on the snow. Putting my hand under the man’s head, I gently turned it so I could see his face.

“Mesrop!” My scream brought Hyrig and other vendors running.

“A cloak! Someone get a cloak. Some hot tea. Quick. Where’s the doctor?” Voices around me called to each other.

I sat in the snow and dirt, cradling my brother’s head, weeping, calling his name.

Someone thrust a warm cup in my hand. “See if he can sip this,” a woman’s voice said. “My husband’s gone for the doctor.”

Lifting Mesrop’s head, I tipped the cup to wet his lips with a drop of the broth.His eyelids fluttered. His tongue licked the drop. Sip upon sip brought slight color to his face.

A rattle of cart wheels and clop of donkey hooves drew my gaze up. Hyrig stooped to gather his boy in his arms. Gently, he laid Mesrop in our donkey cart. A hand offered a cloak. It was from the coppersmith that Mayrig had defended months ago.

“Thank you,” Hyrig said as he tucked the warm garment around Mesrop. “Annie, pack up our stuff. We need to get him home.”

Sensing the urgency of the voices around him, the Gregorians’ donkey hustles back to their farm. Shortly after Hyrig carries Mesrop into the house, the doctor arrives.

Mesrop revived enough to answer the doctor’s questions. “Mesrop, you’ve made it home. We’re all relieved to see you. Where have you been?”

“The Russian front. With Turkey’s 3rd Army Corps. The army conscripted all of us male students from my college. We were porters.”

“What happened at the front?”

“Blizzard. Lieutenant Mahmoud killed. Ran out of food. Many dead. Frozen. Sick. Shot. Tried to help. Long walk back. Alone.”

“Are you sick?”

“Don’t think so. Just hungry. Very tired. Sooooo cold.”

Turning to my parents, the doctor said, “Your son needs warmth, food, and rest. Best start with cleaning him up. Do you have a wash tub and warm water?”

Mayrig took the hint. “Hyrig, let’s get him out of these filthy rags.”

“You should burn them outside,” the doctor instructed. “Shave his head. Burn the hair, too. May be infested with critters.”

Mesrop makes it home. Most of the Turkish soldiers and Armenian porters don’t. Nor is this scenario of missing persons the last to be set in motion by the government in Constantinople in 1915. A mere two months later, Annie’s hyrig goes missing. (See excerpt #13, posted April 23, 2015.)

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #14)

The serious illness of a beloved family member will rearrange both priorities and the schedule of any caregiver. That was true for my entire summer. The only writings I did were lengthy emails as I struggled to drive between hospital and home or between rehabilitation center and home to help with the care of my husband and still maintain our home–without wearing myself out. My husband is a senior citizen and so am I. He wouldn’t have benefitted if I had gotten sick, too.

So plans and purposes had to be set aside–for a time.

The same would have been true for Anahid Gregorian in Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it when her elder brother, Mesrop, collapses at her feet in front of her family’s booth during a January bazaar day in Kemahcelli. Annie and her family hasn’t heard from Mesrop for months. Yet here he is, more dead than alive.

After the town’s doctor comes to their farm to assess her brother’s condition, warns the family about lice and the typhus those critters often carry, and gives directions for Mesrop’s care, Annie willingly responds to her mayrig’s plea.

“Annie,” Mayrig called me from the kitchen where she was washing her hands. When I stood next to her, she whispered, “I need you to take over Mesrop’s care. Winter’s hard enough on the baby. We can’t risk Mary getting sick, too.”

“Don’t worry, Mayrig,” I said with a smile. “First I was a school girl, then a carpet knotter, later a kilim weaver…now a nurse.”

She smiled back. “Good girl.”

After supper, I climbed the ladder to my bedroom. Kneeling for a moment on its kilim, I prayed, “Thank you, Lord God, for answering our prayers for Mesrop’s return. Please heal him; strengthen his body. In the name of the Christ Child. Amen.”

Throwing my rolled bedding over my shoulder, I returned to the main room. Before I crawled under my blanket next to Mesrop, I touched the inside of my wrist to his forehead. As a child growing up, I’d watched Mayrig do this so many times. For the first time, I understood why. Like her, I was checking for a fever. Warm. Not hot That’s good.

That night, the thrashing of my brother in his sleep interrupted my slumbers. I reached over to nudge his shoulder. “Mesrop, what’s the matter?”

“Huh! What? Who’s there?” He sat bolt upright, arms raised in front of his face, looking ready to defend himself.

“It’s me, Annie.”

“Annie? What are you doing here? This is no place for girls!”

“Mesrop, relax. You’re home.”

When he lay down again, I said, “You must have been having a nightmare.” I reached over to cover him carefully.

“Thanks, Annie.”

“You’re welcome, Mesrop.” I prayed silently, Father God, please heal my brother’s mind, his memory, too. He’s probably seen some awful things.

At dawn, I went to the hen-house for a few eggs.

Annie’s departure for America to join her husband – to – be has already been postponed. When Mayrig delivered Gregorian child number six, Mary, Annie was needed to help with the baby, the farm work, and the weaving.

Once again, Annie’s departure is pushed back for months while she is the main caregiver for her brother, Mesrop. Priorities and plans must yield to the urgent.

Nor will this be the last demand. It is January. The year of 1915 has hardly begun.


Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #13)

The tenor of life in the towns and villages across the Anatolian Plains of Ottoman Turkey took a sharp turn for the worse in the early months of 1915. Turkish and Kurdish harassment against their Armenian neighbors became serious and intense. Orders from Constantinople included stripping Armenian gendarmes of their guns and the re-conscription of Armenian men into labor battalions, supposedly to do road construction.

In my book Lavash, Uncle Dikran shows up at Annie’s house to complain about being fired from his town post as a gendarme. After spouting off, he suddenly remembers a message he is supposed to pass on to his brother, Annie’s hyrig.

“Oh, I almost forgot. The town crier passed our house early this morning.” Looking at Hyrig, Uncle said, “Minister of War, Enver, has called up all former conscripts of Armenian army units to serve on labor battalions this spring. That includes you, I believe.”

“It does. Labor battalions?” Hyrig asked. “What kind of labor? It doesn’t mean serving as porters for the army again, does it?”

“No. This time it’s for road construction. Next Friday morning, you are to report to the Centrum in Kemahcelli. Bring food for a week, several lengths of rope, and a shovel.”

That Friday, as Annie says goodbye to her father, she tells him she has a bad feeling about this departure. Her premonition is that the goodbye isn’t temporary. It is really forever.

Two days later, Annie, her mother, and siblings attend church for Easter Sunday services.

She relates, “Only when we were leaving the building did the absence of our men strike me. The church was full of women and children. I could count on one hand the number of men with their families.”

Annie never sees her beloved hyrig again.

What Annie doesn’t know is that armed Turks escort the re-conscripted, unarmed Armenian labor battalions some distance from their towns of origin and summarily ‘deport’ their laborers permanently that spring of 1915, leaving the remaining Armenian population of women, children, and elderly defenseless.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #10)

The henna party Nazli gave for Annie is several weeks past. Annie’s wedding day has arrived and she is up in her small bedroom above her family’s kitchen. Annie is supposed to be dressing for her big day, but instead she is sitting, pondering much, and staring at herself in a mirror.

“Anahid Gregorian! Quit your daydreaming!” Mayrig hollered from the bottom of the ladder. “We don’t want to keep Uncle Dikran waiting. He’ll be here any minute for the ‘kidnapping’.”

I gasped and then chuckled. Unless I wanted to be blindfolded and paraded through the streets of Kemahcelli clad only in my underwear and barefoot, I’d better hurry. Squatting on the sleeping mat, I stroked the wide, silver and gold stripes on the smooth silk of my wedding salvars. Slipping them on, I pulled their drawstring tight around my waist. My heavy, cream-colored silk, floral brocade dress cascaded over my head and shoulders toward my ankles.

While I pulled the loops over the half dozen silk-covered buttons on the front of the dress, I studied the bride in the wardrobe mirror. Narow sleeves flowed smoothly over small shoulders to a collarless neckline and down a snug bodice to an ankle-lenth hem. Two slits in the skirt of the dress ran from hem to hip revealing the lovely gold and silver stripes of the narrow-at-the-ankle salvars. I smiled at my image. Loosening my braids, I brushed my hair until it shone. Pushing its glossy black, wavy lengths behind my ears, I pinned a gold-threaded lace scarf over my hair.

Turning slowly in front of the mirror, I studied the unbelievably stunning bride. Oh, how I wish Petros were here! I’m sure he would love this bride I see. Fastening my bracelet on my wrist and grasping my Bible, I backed carefully down the ladder to the kitchen. Mayrig was waiting for me in the sitting room.

“Anahid, you look lovely,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Here, I have a surprise for you.” She handed me a pair of cream-colored, silk-covered slippers.

Murmuring my thanks and sliding my feet over the soft leather soles of the curved-toe shoes, I showed her my sleeves.

“Well,” she said, “if Dikran appears this moment, he’ll just have to wait.”

After fastening the last button for me, she tipped a tiny bottle of rose water into the palm of her hand. With a smile, Mayrig dabbed droplets of the sweet scent onto my throat and wrists.

At the last dab, Dikran announced his arrival. “Annie, what a lovely bride you make,” Uncle’s voice boomed. “If only Petros could see you now!”

“Thank you, Uncle Dikran. This fabric is amazing and everything fits perfectly.”

“And now on behalf of Petros Hagopian of Pasadena, California, I kidnap you.” So saying, Uncle Dikran bound a blindfold around my head, picked me up, and deposited me on the seat of his cart.

As Uncle’s donkey clopped down our farm lane, Mayrig called, “Annie, the rest of us will meet you at the church.”

With much hoopla, the cart on which I sat sped into town and up and down its lanes. A kidnapped bride was supposed to wail and make a fuss about being stolen away from her parents. But I couldn’t wail. For some strange reason  this custom struck me as terribly funny now that I was the bride. By the time Uncle Dikran had finished the charade and stopped the cart, I was laughing hysterically with tears trickling from under my blindfold.

“Such a brave one!” he mumbled in my ear when he set me on my feet. Carefully undoing its knot at the back of my head, my uncle retrieved his handkerchief.

I looked down the aisle of our Protestant Armenian church. Faces of family and friends were blurred by the tears still rimming my eyes. As Hyrig walked me toward the front of the church, I silently scolded myself, Annie, your family has been planning this day for months. Struggling to settle down, I glanced nervously from face to face and from floral garland to garland of the decorated sanctuary. I remembered to smile my thanks to the women and girls who had helped.

With Uncle Dikran standing next to me holding Petros’ photo, our pastor led us through the wedding service. My uncle spoke Petros’ parts. But there was no kissing of the bride at the end or introduction of the couple as husband and wife. Such things would have to wait for a similar service in America with Petros present. Nonetheless, I had made a lifelong commitment to a man before God, my family, and friends.”

What a wonderful memory for Annie to cling to in the days ahead. The spring and summer months of 1915 would prove to be anything but joyful.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #9)

Girls in any culture love a party, any reason to get together with other girls. Annie and Nazli, the teenaged, main characters of Lavash were no exception.

As was mentioned in the previous posting, the most likely place for a henna party for Annie, the bride-to-be, would have been Kemahcelli’s Turkish bath.

“Steam rose from the hammam’s basins of hot water, beckoning us to a refreshing bath. We washed and ate and gossiped. We tried to guess who would be next among us to marry. The older women listened, looked at each other, and laughed at us behind their hands.

When I had scrubbed and eaten, I sat wrapped in an enormous cotton towel. Two Turkish women hired by Zarifeh knelt on each side of me with bowls of henna paste.

“Annie, let me wear your bracelet while they apply the paste,” Nazli begged.

With a smile, I gently clasped the jeweled links around my friend’s wrist. As she turned its glittering links, the henna artists drew designs on my hands, arms, and feet with sticks they had dipped in the paste. Swirls of the warm, reddish gel soon moved from my fingernails, over my fingers, across the backs of my hands, and up my arms to my elbows. Similar reddish designs ran from my toes to my ankles.

“Annie, the artists would like to henna your neck up to your chin. Is that all right?” Nazli asked.

I looked at Mayrig.

“Annie, have them do whatever you’d like,” she said.

“Nazli, these designs eventually wear off, don’t they? Petros might not understand.”

Nazli laughed. “They’ll be long gone before you ever get near a boat to America, Annie, I promise.”

“All right then, go ahead.”

Nazli stood behind me and piled my hair on the top of my head. I could feel the warmth of the gel being swirled on my skin. When the gel had dried, it was brushed off. Smiling broadly, the artists handed me two mirrors to examine their handiwork.

Already awed by the delicacy of the designs on my hands, arms, and feet, I gaped in amazement at the lacy filigree of reddish-brown that rose from my collar-bone to cover my neck and throat. I laughed with delight as I ran my hands over my skin. “Thank you so much, ladies. You’ve made me truly beautiful today.”

“Good luck, good health, pearl of a bride for Petros.” Nazli hugged me, blew kisses past both of my cheeks, and re-clasped the bracelet on my wrist.

The tiled walls of the room echoed with applause and chatter. As they gathered their things to leave, the girls and women pressed small bits of money into the hands of the hammam attendant, Nazli, and Zarifeh. Mayrig gave each artist a tip and a smile.

For a few precious hours we had been neither Turk nor Armenian but women together, celebrating my coming marriage.”

Such a kindness from her friend Nazli gave Annie a fond memory to hang onto for decades. It was one of several highlights she innocently relished prior to 1915.

Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #8)

While the two groups lived side by side in the small town of Kemahcelli in central Ottoman Turkey, the Turks and the Armenians maintained separate lives–for the most part. The friendship between Annie and Nazli, the book’s two main characters, exposed these teenage girls to each other’s cultural and religious contexts. That exposure helped each girl to look a little more carefully at their own cultural and religious perspectives of the world. That is what was going on in the next excerpts from Nazli’s diary.

Jihad was the topic during one Friday that Nazli went with her mother to the mesjid in Kemahcelli.

Chapter 5

“Iyi arkadasim, 26th June, 1914

Mam and I joined the other women behind the partition in the mesjid today. Since Annie and her family were on their trip for that all-important photo for her Petros, I agreed to go with my mam for Friday prayers.

After prayer, our imam expounded on the righteousness of following Allah the way Mohammed did–with holy war against the infidels. Our holy man talked an eternity. I thought he’d never stop. My legs cramped. I was so relieved when we could finally stand up.

What do I have to do with any holy war? What infidels was the imam talking about? He can’t mean the Christians in our town, can he? Why should we war against them? I don’t see them harming anyone. They obey our laws and pay their taxes more than any of us Muslims pay. At least, that’s what Baba’s told my older brother Yunus and me.

I don’t understand the call to jihad. Who decided that? Against whom? And why?

16th July, 1914

I’ve been thinking about the jihad that the imam called for. I feel ashamed now that I called Annie a gavur. She may not be a Muslim, but she worships Allah, too. Only…she calls him God. She doesn’t bow toward Mecca or prostrate herself when she prays. Nor does she recite prayers. She says whatever she thinks to Allah. I know. I’ve heard her do it whenever it’s prayer time for us Muslims. But can that be right? To speak one’s mind to Allah? I’d better persuade her and her family to become Muslims.

Added note: Petros might object though. He’s Armenian and probably a Christian.”

At this point in the storyline, Nazli’s understanding of what was right and wrong was thoroughly anchored in the world view given her by her family’s Islamic beliefs. Her desire for Annie’s conversion to Islam was based partly on what Nazli believed was right and partly on her growing awareness that Annie’s Christianity might provide the Turkish authorities with a convenient excuse for a disastrous consequence.

By the spring of 1915, Nazli’s niggly feeling of possible danger had developed into an all-encompassing alarm over Constantinople-orchestrated events. Jihad was the drum that the Young Turks of the Ottoman government wielded to get the cooperation of Turks, Rumelians, and Kurds against their Christian neighbors, the Armenians.